Science moves to front line

Jul 11, 2002, vol. 24, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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SFU chemistry chair Mario Pinto stands next to the still-like superconducting magnet that is part of the current nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer in his lab.

It looks like a gigantic still that belongs in a brewery rather than a lab.
But the three-metre tall stainless steel drum that towers over Mario Pinto is a vital part of state-of-the-art equipment used regularly by the chemistry chair and other scientists at SFU.

The still-like superconducting magnet enables a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer to record frequency readings of molecular environments.

The instrument helps scientists dissect molecular shapes and structures.

A more powerful NMR spectrometer is about to replace SFU's current one, thanks to funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Led by Pinto, 20 SFU scientists in the departments of chemistry and molecular biology and biochemistry, including facility director Alan Tracey, secured a $500,000 grant in NSERC's 2002 competition for research tools and instruments grants.

“The new spectrometer will make our research capabilities competitive with those at other institutions. We'll be in the front lines of the leading packs looking at how molecules trigger events by binding to each other,” explains an excited Pinto.

The chemist is researching new vaccine candidates for bacterial diseases such as Streptococcus Group A and new drug candidates for illnesses such as cancer.

The spectrometer provides Pinto with a close-up window into how proteins, carbohydrates and lipids interact with one another.

Their interaction triggers destructive or beneficial processes that could guide drug and vaccine development.

“Because of the superior electronics in the new spectrometer, we'll be able to see molecular interactions in quantities of substances about 100 times smaller than what's visible to the human eye,” says Pinto.

He believes SFU was successful in securing one of the largest grants in this round of NSERC funding for equipment partially because of the amount of interdisciplinary research at SFU involving the spectrometer.

All of the 20 researchers involved in the grant application also receive funding from different granting agencies for research projects using the equipment.

Among the recipients were chemists Andrew Bennet, Keith Slessor and Steven Holdcroft.

The new spectrometer will help Bennet study the interactions of non-natural sugars with carbohydrate metabolizing enzymes.

The instrument's enhanced sensitivity will allow Slessor to analyze how extremely small amounts of organic molecules, used in insect communication, initiate physio-logical changes in insects.

Holdcroft will use the new spectrometer to guide the design of the next generation of membranes used in fuel cells.

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